“Resolved, spirited, and unbreakable”. Those three adjectives describe what personally comes to mind from a title like Inner Fire. In other words, each individual possesses his or her own “fire” inside. Whether or not this was the vision of Pierre Chrétien and the Souljazz Orchestra behind Inner Fire is of minimal importance. What is important and notable is that Souljazz Orchestra deliver a truly genre-bending, international music juggernaut in Inner Fire. It encompasses touches of soul, Latin, Afro, and of course jazz, among others. Brief yet loaded, Inner Fire resides among the elite albums regardless of stylistic labels in 2014.
“Initiation” opens Inner Fire, exemplifying its introductory title. Moody and possessing a mysterious darkness, it establishes the tone of the LP. After an unstable beginning, balance settles in through the statement of the melody. Maintaining a minor key, first full-length cut “Kingdom Come” continues to exhibit moodiness, though it does so with an electrifying groove and alluring sounds. Brief but excellent solos courtesy of baritone sax (Ray Murray), trumpet (Ed Lister), and vibes (Chrétien) show top-notch musicianship, while the recurring piano/vibes riff is nothing short of addictive. The brevity of “Kingdom Come” both packs a punch and feels just right in length. The Latin-soul groove of “One Life to Live” definitely highlights the cut. An electrifying flute solo (Zakari Frantz) doesn’t hurt the cause either, definitely part of the Latin-jazz idiom. The vocals—simple iterations of “one life to live”—are reggae-oriented, truly flaunting the eclectic, international vibe of Souljazz Orchestra.
“As the Crow Flies” opens mysteriously, initiated by the vibes, followed by intensification provided from the cymbals on the drums. Dark, shifting piano chords further set up the enigma, until upright bass (Philippe Charbonneau) establishes stability with another irresistible groove. Unsurprisingly, after all instruments settle in on the head, “As the Crow Flies” reveals itself as an excellent song for soloing. “Black Orchid” possesses more of the “soul” part of the ensemble’s name. Sounding like the perfect instrumental background for any soul singer, “Black Orchid” easily gets the foot tapping and the head nodding. The orchestrations are brilliant, not to mention the magnificent featured vibe and tenor sax solos. Follow-up cut “Agoya” definitely has a mean bite and sass about it, driven by the infectiousness of its Latin groove. Manic and energetic are perfect adjectives to describe this standout.
“East Flows the River” provides a contrast, taking the tempo down and returning to a moodier sound. Philippe Lafreniére’s drum groove, aided by Marielle Rivard’s percussion as well, is another soulfully leaning cut. The pacing of “East Flows the River” feels natural, never pushing too fast to reach its climax. After taking time to establish itself, Steve Patterson solos yearningly on tenor, giving the horn a human-like voice. Throw in Chrétien mystical harp playing to close out the cut, and “East Flows the River” is another phenomenal spin from the orchestra. “Sommet En Sommet” picks right where “Agoya” left off with its Latin influences, though it does slow the tempo. The pianistic and vibe role in the “rhythmic machine” of the groove definitely stand out as notable instrumental features. The rhythmic pianistic role is also expanded, later delivering a slick solo as well as increasing the punch of the overall accompaniment.
Penultimate cut “Celestial Blues”, penned by Andy Bey, kicks off with bassist Charbonneau receiving one of his few features. Charbonneau ends up setting up another awesome soul groove, but not before it sounds as if he’s going to “pick the bass apart”, given his aggressive pizzicato. The Souljazz Orchestra get an assist from percussionist Rivard, who provides lead vocals. Inner Fire closes solidly with outro “Completion”. Slow and reflective, “Completion”, much like “Initiation”, exemplifies its title musically.
Ultimately, Inner Fire is a sensational album from the Canadian-based ensemble. Showing an appealing musical restlessness, Inner Fire is both enjoyable and exceptional. Just missing the 40-minute mark in duration, the album’s brevity proves to be one of its best attributes. With substance and redeeming qualities lying within all 10 tracks (including the briefest in both “Initiation” and “Completion”), only the most hardcore nitpicker can find much wrong.